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USL players form union, prepare for labor negotiations

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Growth in the United Soccer League has come in the form of sprawling expansion, rising operational standards and quality of play. And now comes another sign that the circuit is maturing: the formation of a players' union and the imminent start of labor negotiations.

The league this week formally recognized the USL Players Association as an independent labor union representing the workforce in the U.S. second division, known as USL Championship, which sits a level below Major League Soccer.

The sides are expected to open negotiations soon in hopes of striking a deal on a collective bargaining agreement before the 36 teams open the season in March. Among the prominent issues: minimum salaries.

“It’s a first step in hopefully something that will be productive for both the league and players,” North Carolina FC defender Connor Tobin — a member of an 11-man executive committee that led the effort to unionize — said in an interview Monday night.

“This group has been unified around the idea that this is really something we want to create, that’s going to be sustainable and provide a platform for future generations of players. We want to move the needle on some issues, hopefully in the near future, but this is really about creating something that, over time, goes hand in hand” with the growth of the league.

The USL, founded in 1986, welcomed the formation of the union, with chief executive Alec Papadakis saying, “In many ways, this is simply the next, natural step in the evolution of building a great and enduring league.”

The Tampa-based organization oversees USL Championship, USL League One (third-tier pro) and USL League Two (fourth-tier amateur). The union will represent Championship players only and not include those who are on loan from MLS clubs. MLS has its own union, the MLS Players Association, which was founded more than 15 years ago and reached its first CBA with the league in 2004.

The USL players received guidance from the MLSPA, Tobin said, and enlisted legal assistance from a Boston firm in forming the union.

Tobin, 31, joined Penn FC forward Tom Heinemann, 31, and retired goalkeeper Trey Mitchell, 27, on the players' council, which spearheaded the endeavor.

Tobin called it a “player-driven” initiative, saying the 11-member executive committee was in regular communication with team representatives. “This is something that a substantial group of players has worked on through the entire year.”

Plans to unionize USL players began three years ago and took flight again before the 2018 season, Tobin said. The catalyst, he noted, was last year’s demise of the lower-tier North American Soccer League, a collapse that left many players out of work.

As for the priorities in the CBA negotiations, “We’ve been so focused on getting something formalized, we’re still putting ideas together,” Tobin said. “We’re new to this, the league is new to this, so we’ll need to work together.”

For its part, the league seems willing to engage in the process.

“We are in a unique situation in that a lot of USL executives, at both the club and league level, are former players," said Jay Heaps, a longtime MLS defender who is president and general manager of expansion Birmingham Legion FC. "With that, there is a degree of learned empathy for what players go through in their careers that exists here in the USL more than most professional sports organizations. I believe that will go a long way to ensure a collaborative collective bargaining process. We will have to work together to get it right, but ultimately, this is good for everyone.”